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Thursday, July 14, 2011
Miami-Dade mayor: Cut property tax rates, pare services
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez unveiled a proposed budget that calls for cutting 1,300 positions and shuttering 13 public libraries, but maintaining senior and kids services.
By Martha Brannigan and Matthew Haggman
Miami-Dade County’s new mayor proposed Wednesday eliminating nearly 1,300 county jobs, squeezing concessions from county workers and paring back services, including closing 13 public libraries and mothballing two county fireboats.
Unveiling his proposed budget for the new fiscal year, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who campaigned on a promise to cut taxes and rein in a bloated government, laid out a plan that would cut the county’s overall property-tax rate by 11.8 percent.
The move — which would lower county tax bills this year for virtually all property owners — would reverse the wildly unpopular rate hike that was pushed through last year by his predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, provoking the largest recall of a local elected official in U.S. history.
In coming weeks, it will become clear whether residents, who have been clamoring for lower taxes, and county commissioners, who are sensitive to county unions and other key constituencies and who will ultimately set the tax rate and the budget, have the stomach for the service cuts that go hand-in-hand with a smaller budget.
On Thursday, the mayor plans to make his case by holding a “town hall’’ session with constituents on Facebook at 7 p.m. at www.miamidade.gov/mayor.
Under Gimenez’s proposal, county employees would shoulder a heavy part of the burden, kicking in a total of $238.8 million in concessions.
With Miami-Dade’s current labor agreements set to expire Sept. 30, Gimenez is pressing unions to embrace substantial concessions, including increasing employees’ contribution to health care insurance to 10 percent of their salaries from the current 5 percent. He already announced that he’s imposing that extra cost on the county’s non-union workers. The move comes even as county employees have been hit with a new requirement to kick in 3 percent of their salaries toward the Florida Retirement System, a burden previously funded fully by the county.
The mayor also wants employees to give back raises that range from 3 percent for most worker groups to 13 percent for police, and he’s seeking to eliminate a variety of benefits, such as merit raises.
John Rivera, president of the Dade Police Benevolent Association, which represents county police officers, said he hasn’t received any formal notice of the mayor’s proposals. His reaction Wednesday evening was muted: “We are committed to sitting down with the current administration and seeing where we can agree,’’ said the usually feisty union boss. “We have scheduled meetings, and we’re going to try to work through where we can work through. If we can’t work through, there is a process that we hope he’ll respect.’’
The mayor’s proposed budget also calls for cutting county positions to 26,361 from 27,647, a reduction of 1,292. While 511 of those positions are currently vacant, the mayor’s budget envisions about 781 actual layoffs.
County commissioners are set to meet Tuesday to set a preliminary tax rate. The commission will then hold two public hearings, on Sept. 8 and Sept. 22, to set the actual tax rate and settle on the new budget.
“For too long now, the residents that we serve have been making financial sacrifices, adjusting their lifestyles and tightening belts within their own households in order to survive this economic storm,’’ Mayor Gimenez told a wall of cameras and reporters at a late afternoon press conference Wednesday. “It’s time that we as a government do the same.’’
While Miami-Dade has been hit particularly hard by the housing and financial crises, the idea of combining government employee layoffs and concessions with service cuts to close a budget gap is a familiar theme that is playing out at municipal and state governments around the nation as they struggle with declining revenue. Indeed, cuts in government jobs are a major reason that the U.S. job market remains so bleak, as modest hiring in the private sector fails to compensate for the massive losses in government jobs.
The mayor’s plan calls for cutting his own office budget by 20 percent. Gimenez took office on July 1 announcing he had, on his own initiative, cut his $310,000 salary and benefits package in half and eliminating a controversial $600-a-month car allowance..
He is also asking county commissioners to cut their office budgets by 10 percent — a move that is sure to spur controversy among the 13 elected officials, who tap the money to dole out support to favorite causes. Particularly controversial: The mayor is seeking to eliminate a long-standing county practice that allows commissioners to roll over to future years any unspent funds in their office budgets.
Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who represents District 3, which cuts through a host of neighborhoods from Liberty City and Overtown to the Upper East Side and North Miami, said she is just beginning to digest the mayor’s proposed budget after sitting down with him and couldn’t say yet whether she will embrace it.
“I really do plan to try to support the mayor as much as possible through the budget cycle and the coming year,’’ she said.
In total, the mayor’s proposed budget for next year is $6.16 billion, down 19 percent from the current year total of $7.6 billion. That reduction includes cutting construction spending 39.5 percent, to $1.67 billion, from $2.77 billion this year, as major county projects at Miami International Airport and other areas near completion.
Under the mayor’s plan, the county’s operating budget — which includes day-to-day expenses such as salaries and services as opposed to capital projects — would be cut 7.3 percent to $4.44 billion, from $4.79 billion this year.
Gimenez says that confronted with tough choices, he is focusing on preserving core services. That means, for example, the Miami-Dade fire department, whose tax rate isn’t getting cut as steeply as others, is being salvaged from deeper cuts it would have had to make. But the public library budget would be hit hard, with 13 libraries closing. He didn’t identify which branches he’s seeking to close.
While the cuts are widespread, the mayor is proposing to retain programs that serve senior citizens and children at current levels. In prepared remarks to county officials Tuesday, Gimenez advocated “protecting vital programs for our most vulnerable residents — the elderly and children.’’
The mayor said he plans to look to the community for alternative sources of funding for the libraries. Indeed, on Wednesday evening, Jorge Luis Lopez, a Miami attorney and County Hall lobbyist, who chairs the parks foundation, said he is spearheading an effort to raise funds to try to prevent closures of libraries.
“There are civic leaders and corporate interests that can rally behind a cause like this,’’ Lopez said.